One result was that the usually intrepid reporter crossed the street with extra care. He hadn’t, though, developed obsessive compulsive disorder; nor had he become delusional, worried that some practitioner of the dark arts was lurking in the shadows.
Rather, Stanage had undertaken to write a book about Barack Obama’s extraordinary year and, it was due on the Tuesday after Election Day. He realized that an accident or illness at the wrong time and place would mean all bets were off, likely consigning his work to the waste-paper basket of history.
In fact, Nov. 11 was the last of three big deadline dates he’d been set for the project. “They were seared in my mind at one stage; now they’re beginning to fade,” said Stanage, a 34-year-old native of Belfast.
The outcome of his self-imposed “anti-social, hermitic and pressurized existence” was a happy one.
“Redemption Song” appeared in bookstores on Dec. 1 on the other side of the Atlantic and comes out this month in the U.S.”
The reviews so far have been very positive. “An intimate account,” commented the Irish Independent, adding that Stanage “has a keen eye for the overlooked nuances of modern America.”
“A fine book,” said Pat Rabbitte, the former leader of the Labor Party, in the Irish Mail on Sunday. “An analytical and insightful narrative.”
Stanage, who filed some of his campaign reports for the rival Sunday Business Post, first established himself in journalism in Dublin in the late 1990s. The graduate of English literature from St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, contributed to and then joined the staff of Hot Press, the music and politics biweekly. A planned relocation to New York was postponed for a year in 2002 when he was appointed editor of the current affairs magazine Magill, where he successfully boosted readership.
Stanage continued to specialize in politics after his move to America, writing for the New York Observer, the Guardian and the Irish Echo, as well as the Sunday Business Post.
In late 2007, with the New York Observer’s main political correspondent Jason Horowitz assigned to follow local senator and Democratic primary favorite Hillary Clinton, the Belfast man was given the Obama detail.
As the Illinois senator later tightened his grip on his party’s nomination, Stanage knew that, win or lose in November, he was witnessing an extraordinary campaign and conceived the idea for the book. Conor O’Clery, the former Irish Times correspondent in the U.S., put him in touch with his agent in Dublin, Jonathan Williams. The journalist considered various offers and ultimately decided on a deal with Liberties Press.
“I didn’t want to write one of those cheap cash-in books that we’ve all seen relating to various current events, and it wasn’t so much the deadline that was terrifying as the notion of doing a book that you’re happy to stand behind,” Stanage said.
And so, in time, he joined the ranks of those who’ve written a “campaign book.” Theodore White invented the genre with “The Making of the President, 1960” but its most famous title is the extraordinary “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” by Hunter S. Thompson.
Rather more in the spirit of the latter than the former, Stanage felt the book gave him room to express his views more fully than he might in his newspaper reports.
One of his targets was close to home. He believes that while one can clearly speak of a Catholic vote in America, he dismisses as an “anachronism” the idea that there is a distinctly Irish-American vote beyond a couple of thousand people. “The tendency is to characterize people like me who express that view as – maybe anti-Irish is too strong a word — but certainly as if they’re not backing the team,” he said.
“But I would argue completely the reverse – that you should always give readers or viewers or listeners the respect of telling them the truth as best as you can discern it,” he said.
Stanage didn’t hide the fact that his respect for Senator Clinton and her husband diminished with each passing month in 2008.
In contrast, he admired the campaign that he was following at close hand.
“In terms of plotting a strategy, they showed a degree of steadiness that wasn’t evident with the Clinton or McCain campaigns,” Stanage said. “They didn’t get overly buffeted by the winds that inevitably strike at presidential campaigns.”
Stanage was on the campaign plane during certain periods in September and October, part of an elite group of less than 25 print journalists with that vantage point.
His length of time covering Obama meant that any natural suspicion on the part of campaign aides was long gone by the fall.
By that point, he was on first-name terms with David Axelrod, the campaign’s chief strategist.
“But whether he’d get the right first name a couple of months later is another issue,” the journalist added.
Stanage said the press corps, which had an affection for Obama himself, was very fond of his chief strategist. The soft-spoken and likable Axelrod didn’t fit the stereotype of the hard-driving political campaign manager, he said.
Stanage saw Axelrod get upset on just one occasion — when the campaign failed to kill off Clinton’s bid in Texas on March 3. It would be a long seven weeks until Pennsylvania, which she was also likely to win. The media was to spend that period focusing on Obama’s poor showing with certain types of voters even though the most successful of candidates have weaknesses at the primary stage.
“The model that says if you can’t win the primary, you won’t win the state in the presidential election is just quite clearly rubbish,” Stanage said.
And so it proved.
Niall Stanage will speak at the “Barack House Party” at the Hue-Man Bookstore, Harlem, this coming Saturday, Feb. 21, at 6 p.m. For details go to: www.huemanbookstore.com. “Redemption Song” is available at bn.com and amazon.com.